In 2011 Stan Musilek photographed the album artwork for what would become Lou Reed’s final full-length musical project, Lulu.
The album, a collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica, was inspired by German playwright Frank Wedekind’s early 20th century Lulu plays which tell the story of a sexually-enticing dancer who rises in German society through her relationships with wealthy men but subsequently falls into poverty and prostitution.
Lulu’s imagery is centered on a mannequin bust from the 1800’s, a woman’s nude body and lyrics superimposed on the surface of the images with blood. At first, the final photographs faced censorship and media scrutiny. However a mere 2 years later, in 2013, they were awarded the prestigious Graphis Gold Award.
October 24th marks the one year anniversary of Lou Reed’s passing. As such, we wanted to take a moment and reflect with Stan Musilek on the process, concept and reception of this album and its artwork.
1. How did you get involved in this project? Were you a Lou Reed fan before?
I got involved through David Turner from Turner Duckworth with whom I’ve collaborated for twenty-odd years. David asked me if I was on board to shoot photos for Lou Reed’s latest musical project, and of course I jumped on it. And yes, I have always been a huge Lou Reed fan. In my college days I had all the vinyls.
2. Tell us more about the conceptual process. Lulu is based on Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays which pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable on the stage at the time. Did you also intend on making something that pushed society’s boundaries?
That was absolutely the case. We talked about this a lot with David. This was Lou Reed we were working with, and pushing boundaries was just his nature. You’d talk about something with Lou, or show him something — something most people would consider racy — but he’d react like it was tame, just shrug his shoulders and say “it’s fine.” So then we figured it out and we’d go back to him with something like blood added to the picture, and he loved it! He was the epitome of pushing boundaries.
3. Were there any memorable moments or conversations between you and Lou Reed while conceiving and shooting Lulu ?
Oh yeah, that’s a great question. I could talk for a whole evening. Speaking of pushing boundaries, I’m not even sure we can put some of these on the web, but I’ll give you two.
So we started with this synthesis of the sculpture bust and the real human body, and of course we were aware that this would be for a worldwide market and that we couldn’t go beyond a certain point. But in the studio we did take versions that were more x-rated, though we didn’t present those at first to Lou. At first, we were showing him the more timeless and classical compositions of the female body. So that’s when he came back at us with, “Hey guys, this is rock and roll. We need more pussy.” [laughs] That’s when we showed him the other material and then he was happy.
There’s another story that David recently reminded me about. There is this picture I took at the Museum der Dinge [where the bust we used for Lulu resides] of what looks like a mannequin head wrapped in bandage, with blood seeping through the back of the head. Well, each of the final shots I took went with a corresponding song for the album, so that was going with one of the songs. At the exhibition we had in Chelsea [at the Steven Kasher Gallery], we showed all the shots that didn’t make the cut for the commercial release of the album. As the exhibition was about to be hung, Lou said he would like to name the pieces. We thought that was just great, that he wanted a part of each of the photographs that I was showing. So he sent us all the names, and the one he gave to that head with the blood was “Black Man’s Dick.” David says that to this day he regrets he didn’t save my voicemail to him from Berlin. Given that this was Lou Reed we were talking about, I guess I was trying to be diplomatic, saying that “of course all Lou’s names are great, just really great, but I’m not quite sure about that one. I’m not sure I want to be identified in a gallery with that title…” and all that. So David calls Lou and brings this up, and Lou was furious, saying “I thought you guys were different, but you just want to cave like every one else when things get controversial.” And then he hang up on David. But then he called David back a little later and said, “ok, Stan might be right. He might be right.” [laughs] Lou was an artist, but talk about pushing boundaries!”
4. The images depict the mannequin bust sometimes paired with a nude body. Other images have lyrics written on the surface with what appears to be blood. What was the production of this artwork like? What steps were taken during post-production? And… is it really blood?
Actually, it is blood. It’s pig’s blood. We wrote with pig’s blood on the surface of the images with our fingers and then reshot them. One of my favorite shots with the blood is the one with the text, “I’m just a small town girl who’s gonna give life a whirl.” I just thought that was a great lyric and it worked really well with the image.
For the mannequin with the nude body, the process was interesting because we had to do it out of sequence. I was working in Paris and got the call that the curator agreed to let us shoot the bust and that the date was arranged. So I hopped on a plane, and at the time I was thinking, how can I illustrate 14 songs just by taking photographs of a bust from different angles? And that’s when Lou said “we can’t just shoot a bust, let’s get more racy.” So we were on the same page, and that’s when the idea came to add a human in there. The sequence was tricky because we only had three days for shooting in Berlin, and the date for shooting the bust was set because we had this appointment already, so I had to shoot the bust before shooting the body. Because of that, I had to have a well conceived idea of what positions we would do with the body when we were shooting the bust. On top of that, I wasn’t going to be allowed to touch the bust in the museum – they were giving us two handlers who would deal with that. So, this is how we did it. We quickly arranged for a stand-in nude to come to the hotel on the first day – that’s a whole other story, but I couldn’t believe someone would just show up and get naked for us. That’s when we sketched out the compositions with a point-and-shoot camera. Then we photographed the bust from all the necessary angles at the museum. While we were at the museum, we saw there were all these crazy objects there, and we were able to sweet talk the curator to let us shoot them. On the last day, we had this great, high profile model come to the studio to shoot her nude. She agreed to be totally nude because it was for Lou Reed, and because her face wouldn’t be in the final photographs.
5. The album imagery was ultimately censored by Transport for London from being used as promotional material in London Underground stations and trains. It was even considered controversial to certain media outlets. Can you elaborate?
We weren’t a part of that process, so we don’t know much about it. I think a big element in censoring it was because of the pig’s blood and that people said it looked like graffiti. They didn’t want that in the stations. Aside from that, there was also this thing that they were dealing with commercial pressures. They wanted to sell the album in Walmart, so we couldn’t use some of the pictures.
Special thanks to Stan Musilek and Shahrzad Ehya for their time and collaboration to make this interview possible!